Meat Industry Robotics

March 2010

Silver Fern Farms uses x-rays and robots in its processing plant to maximise value

How Silver Fern Farms uses X-ray and robotic technology: and as a result how they found that 5-12% of lambs have 14 ribs, as opposed to the usual 13.

Balclutha has a population of 4500, and Silver Fern Farms is the regions biggest employer with 1000 people at its Finegand plant. Finegand is the single largest site for the company, and it has a large sheep and lamb kill of 1.5 million and 60,000 cattle per year.

Its always going to be an issue to get sufficient staff to bone all the product at Finegand. Thats why some product still goes to the Silverstream plant for further processing.

This technology is a revolution for the meat industry, and its taken years of hard work to get it to where it is today.

Six years ago SFF formed a company with Scott Technology called Robotic Technologies Ltd for robotic development in meat processing. We wanted to increase meat yield, save labour and reduce accidents in the workplace.

Unions were worried that people might lose their jobs but that hasnt happened as workers are transferred to other jobs.

A big issue is health and safety. We are using robots and automation equipment to remove bandsaws and help make peoples jobs easier and ensure they can work for longer in their careers.

This is a good news story, because there are no redundancies, but instead SFF can better use its labour for added value tasks which are safer.

To put X-rays into all the SFF plants will cost $10million; at Finegand this project has cost $3.5m including the robotics and the room. At Finegand also the room will process 8000 lambs/day when it is in full operation, which is two-thirds of the plants capacity; at present it is processing around half.

When we developed the X-ray system last year it was launched at our Pareora plant south of Timaru. It is called the Market Value Traceability System.

The Pareora machine is used for carcass grading while those at Takapau and Finegand also calculate cutting positions for the automatic primal cutting machine.

The X-ray machine takes two pictures of every animal, and then informs the primal cutting machine where to cut to separate the legs, middles and forequarters. The first shot is taken then the carcass is turned 90 degrees and goes back through the machine. It creates an entire picture on one screen of both sides.

With X-ray, we are learning more all the time about differences between animals. Thats how we found that while most lambs have 13 ribs, a few have 12 and about 5% and up to 12% of lambs have 14.

Grant says it could be as high as 12% and they are collecting more data at present to give a more accurate percentage.

We are still interpreting this information: it seems as though those with 14 ribs have a smaller loin or eye muscle. Our gut feel is that 14 is preferable to 12. And there seem to be breed differences which we will identify over the season. People might have been aware of it but it raises the question of how important it is?

The angle of the ribs at the cut position between the middle and forequarter varies through about 26 degrees with some square to the spine, and others quite skewed.

Grant says this is quite visual and impressive to watch, and he thinks the square-on ribs have to have more potential market value than the others.

The primal cutting machine adjusts the cut angle to follow the rib line rather than cutting through the ribs. The rib angle effects the presentation of racks and chops in the marketplace. At this stage we dont know what causes this difference, but will see if it is breed related over the next few months.

With the primal cutting machinery, we can get a good view of the loin muscle to be able to measure the eye muscle area using an on-line camera. We can also measure the surface fat depth around the chop at this position to get much better information than with standard grading.

The robotics are important especially for health and safety, especially at the bandsaw stage when the carcass is split into smaller cuts. So its a productivity issue as well. Using robotics gets away from danger of accidents in these situations.

Local Dunedin firm Scott Technology build the equipment and work with us to integrate it into our production systems. At the moment we have three X-ray machines up and operating at Pareora, Finegand and Takapau.

We have automated carcase primal cutting machines at Takapau and Finegand and leg boning robots at Finegand and Silverstream.

There are better yields from the technology, with more accurate cutting and no sawdust loss. We also get a smoother flow of cuts into the main room, improving room productivity.

We use robots to bone out the leg pairs. These robots are the same types of machines which are used on car assembly lines. Its a seamless operation, and the only people there are managing the machines.

The next stage is to automate the processing of the other primal cuts. We are working on the forequarter trimming task, with robots and cutting equipment being installed at the moment.

Theres been some Government funding from FRST and even some from Australian money from Meat and Livestock Australia goes into this project. This is all new technology for meat, and the first such work in NZ.

The pork industry overseas uses robotics, but it is a much less complex process. Lambs are all shapes and sizes and have harder bones than pigs.

We use RFID, which is radio frequency identification on the carcass skids for traceability, which is quite an important angle for us. It all links together as part of a whole package, allowing us to record X-ray and other data for each carcass through the process.

When lambs come in with EID tags, we are able to report data back to farmers on individual animals. As we build up our diagnostic capability with X-ray and other technologies, this will be a powerful tool for improving animal performance.

Along with X-ray, we are working on ways to measure carcass quality and shelf life. We will be able to use this information to make the best decisions for each carcass, matching it to customer requirements. This means we can meet tight customer specifications while getting the maximum value from each animal.

Its also really fast and snappy. The Pareora X-ray runs at 30 carcasses a minute with two images for each carcass so the computer is processing an X-ray image every second.

We run the primal cutters at Takapau and Finegand at 10/minute so the X-ray systems there are just idling.

While X-ray and automation equipment help us in processing, we want to use the information to feed back to farmers to help them improve the genetics of their flocks, feed management and animal health to get the meat yield and quality our customers demand.

There is a real potential for improvement in farm productivity that is possible with the new technologies such as X-ray.

If farmers do tag their animals electronically, then they will get better information from this system: the individual data is where you get the real value.

Over the next couple of years well build up a database of information about the lambs, because we need a few million for that. This is going to be a powerful source of information for breeding programmes.

Only those farmers with contracts will get X-ray information on their animals. Supplies coming in on schedule cant get it. This year we are looking at well over 50% on our Backbone contract system.

The range of market value for the same weight and grade of lamb at current prices is about $8 for 95% of animals processed, with a few higher or lower than that.

About half of this is explained by the distribution of weight between the lower value forequarter and the leg/middle. The rest is explained by yield differences in each primal.

For example, a middle with a bigger loin or eye muscle will be worth more than a skinny one. X-ray predicts most of the primal weight difference, and we are working on advanced X-ray and other diagnostics to get the sub-primal information.

The increased value to the farmer from supplying top quality lambs is from $2-$5/animal. We plan to introduce a payment for top animals once we build up our database over the next few months.